The Importance of Dark SkiesApril 6, 2023
By: Luke Rogers
Have you ever fallen into the stars? I don’t mean to suggest you’re clumsy – I’m trying to describe the effect of a perfect night sky observed in just the right way. It’s nice to glance up briefly and see tiny flickers, like backlit pinpricks in a dark roof. And as more stars come out it’s fun to play connect-the-dots for constellations, navigating with familiar landmarks such as the Big Dipper or Orion to piece together new, trickier figures like a puzzle.
But sometimes these approaches can feel flat, compared to falling in. I find that this phenomenon is best experienced in a quieter setting, where you’re not tempted to turn your head in conversation. It’s best with a nice wide view, somewhere the trees and canyon walls are lower toward the horizon. And it helps to lay down or recline in a comfortable way, so the body’s contact with the earth is a little lighter, and not distracting.
Then, just remember what the stars are: enormous endless explosions burning farther away than you can ever comprehend. Not just far from you, but from each other as well. One little twinkle may be an unfathomable distance behind a similar twinkle right beside it. If you vaguely focus on the canvas of lights, you may really start to sense that it isn’t a canvas at all, but an infinite field stretching in front of you. And when you feel the full depth of this void in front, you know it stretches all around the tiny planet holding you in a tight gravitational hug to its surface. You and this rock are just a speck drifting through an impossible amount of space, where things like “up”, “down” and “end” simply don’t exist. You’ve fallen in, and what a view!
What is a Dark Sky?
Regardless of your favorite way to appreciate it, hopefully, we can all agree the night sky is pretty cool. But some places on earth have better night sky than others. The main reason is that artificial lights from cities and towns spill into the sky and wash out the delicate features overhead, a phenomenon called “light pollution”. As you can see from the map on the right (Utah outlined in red), it is widespread.
But did you realize that, much like undisturbed mountains and forests, the pristine night sky can receive official recognition that comes with regular monitoring and management? An organization called the International Dark Sky Association (IDA) created the designation of “Dark Sky Park” back in 2001 for exceptionally dark places around the world. The simple rules are that the Milky Way must be visible to the naked eye, and access opportunities must exist for the general public to visit the area. But the program is serious business with lots of detailed requirements, like scientific measurements of the sky’s darkness, an inventory of every single artificial light source in the park, and annual reporting requirements. Fortunately, this means the parks are truly special places to contemplate the glimmering heavens, and the IDA maintains a list of them here on its website.
You may have noticed that Utah looks relatively good on the map above, especially in the southern and eastern parts of the state. Well, Utah does contain a uniquely high number of Dark Sky Parks – 22 in fact! Many Holiday trips run right under these exceptional skies, like Yampa or Lodore expeditions through Dinosaur National Monument, and our Cataract Canyon experience through Canyonlands National Park. And as far as we can tell, our other nearby routes through places like the Desolation Canyon Wilderness have equal quality stargazing, although they lack official IDA recognition, which is probably just due to the administrative resources required to seek and maintain the status.
But wait, there’s more!
As powerful as it is to peek out into the cosmos, or just catch your first sighting of the little dipper, these aren’t the only reasons to care about dark skies.
Have you ever seen a baby sea turtle? They’re adorable, and light pollution kills them. They hatch on the beach, and often mistake oceanfront house lights for the glimmer of the moon on the water, crawling the wrong way up the sand into the hungry jaws of foxes, raccoons, or BMWs ripping down ocean boulevard. Birds often migrate at night, when city lights can confuse their navigation. Nocturnal predators and prey like owls and mice can suffer interference with their normal survival strategies from stray unnatural light. Even we humans increasingly limit our screen time in the name of sleep hygiene. But ambient outdoor lighting is also implicated in disturbing healthy human circadian rhythms.
Of course, excess lights waste energy, too. Wasted energy is a waste of money, to say nothing of pointless environmental damage from producing it. Poorly-designed lighting can even reduce public safety, especially around roadways. And no, it isn’t consistently true that more lights reduce crime. The International Dark Sky Association is concerned about all of these impacts and has even produced materials to explain them better. This page from their website is a good starting point if you would like to learn more!
The good news
Fortunately, there are lots of solutions, and some are quite easy. The IDA has great resources for folks who own homes and other properties, like the 5 principles of responsible outdoor lighting (spoiler: less is more!). Just like a faucet, light fixtures can inherently leak, making it hard to reduce spillage into the sky. The IDA has done research on those and has a certification program to help you invest in effective equipment. Encouragingly, this is getting some real attention, with major lighting stores like Home Depot and Lowes joining the IDA as corporate partners.
If going yard-to-yard sounds a little slow to you, the IDA agrees! In addition to recognizing Dark Sky Parks, they certify entire light-conscious towns and cities as Dark Sky Communities. These places aren’t as magnificently dark as the Parks, but they follow a similar monitoring program and work actively to reduce their impact on the night sky. The IDA supports these local governments with resources like model ordinances designed to update lighting standards with minimized burdens on homes and businesses.
A great chance to dive deeper into the world of right-light activism occurs every year in the form of International Dark Sky Week, starting April 15th, 2023. Follow the link for more information about finding a public awareness event near you or starting your own. If you work better alone, you can also find a smartphone app on the website homepage to help you measure the darkness of the sky and report it to the IDA, because understanding the problem helps us solve it!
At Holiday, we think it’s important to recognize that light pollution damages an important part of our natural world: the lovely stars. Because we are lucky enough to run trips under some of the world’s most spectacular skies, we hope you’ll take some time to deliberately appreciate that part of the outdoor experience. We’d love it if you’re even inspired to improve your own sky when you go back home, using some of these resources from our friends at the IDA.
And, if you really want to expand your knowledge of the skies, consider booking one of our dedicated stargazing trips, which include curated presentations by experts from the Clark Planetarium in Salt Lake City, a Holiday partner since 2016. Here are the opportunities for 2023.
Luke is a South Carolina native who visited Utah’s canyon county a few years ago, and never found his way home. At this point, he’s fully embraced learning all he can about the vast desert and raging rivers, so he might be here a while. He’s a big fan of riding bikes, eating snickers, finding scorpions, and bringing people along to share in all the adventure!